Updated: Nov 20, 2019
& How to Fix Them
Many children struggle to concentrate on a task for even small lengths of time. This does not mean that we cannot improve their ability to focus.
As a qualified secondary maths teacher with 15 years of teaching experience I have often heard the phrase “he just can’t sit still” or “she never listens” or “she doesn’t follow instructions”.
Parents regularly bring their child along to our martial arts classes knowing that we can help to improve the child’s ability to focus.
The ability to concentrate and maintain attention on a task is very important, as children learn and improve, they grow in confidence and positive self-esteem.
Concentration is like a muscle that requires regular exercise to strengthen. Some children naturally find it easier to concentrate than others, but all children can improve their concentration skills.
The inability to focus is not something that we can ignore, poor concentration in school can have long lasting implications into adulthood. Hours of squirming in a classroom seat or staring out of the window in their own little world may not seem a huge problem in a 5 year old, but if this is a long lasting habit formed, it will impact on those GCSE results and therefore limit future life choices.
Five reasons for poor concentration
To understand how to improve a child’s ability to concentrate we first need to consider the reasons why they are struggling with this important life skill. This list is not exhaustive but the top 5 reasons for poor concentration in children are:
A task is difficult or “boring”
They want your attention
Lack of sleep
If your child occasionally finds it a challenge to focus on a task, consider the above factors and think about if they apply to your little angel. The chances are high that one or more of these factors could be having an impact on their ability to concentrate.
A task is difficult
This can be true for both adults and children, if a task is a challenge, we easily become distracted. Think about the time that you may have avoided that report for work or the coursework assignment at school. It was going to require a load of research and push you to the edge of your comfort zone, did you leave it to the last minute? I have a clear memory during my GCSE’s of being made to read 1984 by George Orwell, I just couldn’t get my head around it. I had had some time off school poorly so missed the teacher input and never finished the coursework.
If adults avoid tasks or put them off until a more “convenient” time why would children be any different? The difference is that as adults we understand that sometimes you have to just get your head down and get on with it, that the reward of pushing through a challenge is worth the initial discomfort.
Children are constantly being challenged with difficult learning. They learn thousands of new things each week, is it any wonder that they struggle to focus on some activities?
We can all help children see the benefits of working through a challenge by supporting them, encouraging them and helping them to stay motivated to get a task completed.
Perseverance is key, giving up will result in no gain and encourage a “I cannot do it” attitude
Some tasks are too large for us to tackle in one go, they need to be broken down into manageable chunks. Children are not equipped to do this and will need some support from you at times to complete part of a task and then coming back to it later. Things like timers or mini deadlines might help with this. Alternatively, make a to do list with mini deadlines and rewards to keep them on track.
I am easily distracted and I know that I am also a terrible distraction. This is a public apology to all of my school friends who I talked to every single lesson throughout my entire schooling…….
As a teacher the worst kind of distractions are weather, snow is a particular issue, one flake and a whole class will look out of a window and embark on a 5 minute conversation about whether the school will close early and “will tomorrow be a snow day?”.
At home there are even more distractions, all of their toys, the television, siblings, the cat. How on earth do we expect our little darlings to focus on their homework when they are surrounded by exciting distractions?
We can all agree that distractions are many and varied but in this time of social media our phones and tablets are probably one of the biggest issues. How many times do we pick up our phone in the middle of a TV programme that we actually enjoy and become instantly immersed in someone else’s story? What message are we giving to our children when we constantly check our phone instead of engaging with our own world?
With a little bit of thought and some ground rules we can help our children improve their concentration by controlling some of these distractions. So as parents we can designate time for those tasks that require concentration and remove the obvious distractions.
Create a space where they are less likely to be distracted. Before homework time turn off the television or if other people are watching it make sure that your child is sat far enough away that they are unlikely to be distracted. Turn off the computers and mobile phone and not just for your child, set a positive example by not playing with your phone whilst they are working.
They want your attention
I think that this is sometimes one of the hardest things to acknowledge and manage when you are the parent. At home attention seeking behaviour can be a child constantly climbing on you or grabbing you, usually accompanied by a whine. They may want something that they know they should not have and will continue to ask for it until you cave in.
Even a child as young as 3 is making a mental note of how they got their own way and they will repeat this activity again and again. This is a challenging behaviour to break but is completely normal for children aged 3-7 years old.
When your child is demanding your attention try to have empathy, they are going to need some training to stop and understanding your child might help you to remain patient.
Learn to ignore the behaviour and explain that whining or repetitive demands will not get them what they want. After a hard day at work it can be hard to say no repeatedly but it is very important that you do!
Make sure that you are giving your child attention, the right sort. Engage with them in positive activities and praise often for the doing the right things.
Sugar. It is the curse of concentration!
We all want to reward our child for doing well, we want to perhaps give them all of the nice things that we were not able to have when we were children. The intention is good, but sugar should never be the reward. Give a child sweets’ and they bounce, they get silly, they cannot concentrate.
Children do not need sugar. You are not being kind by giving them sugar. You are sending their blood sugar levels into spikes and creating your own little monster with an unhealthy attachment to sweet things.
A balanced diet with lots of fruit and vegetables is what they need. The bonus to feeding your children what you know they should eat and removing the things that you know they should not will likely lead to an improvement in your own diet. There will be no more wagon wheels in the cupboard for you to grab when you feel a bit peckish! This is such a big win on so many levels.
Children should have a healthy breakfast every day, cars do not run without fuel. Neither do children.
Some foods have been shown to improve brain function, fish really is brain food, avocados are lush and blueberries are brilliant.
They should be well hydrated. Dehydration also inhibits brain function.
Lack of sleep
Children need plenty of good quality sleep. As a secondary school teacher I definitely saw plenty of evidence of what happens when children and young adults have not had enough. They will literally fall asleep in classrooms, they become irritable, irrational and their concentration is terrible. Social media and gaming are often the problem for the older children.
It is recommended that for children aged 3 to 5 they have 10 – 13 hours sleep, school aged children should have between 9 and 11 hours sleep per night.
It can be hard to identify if your child is having enough sleep and they are unlikely to know this for themselves. Tired children do not necessarily slow down like an adult would, they instead act like they are not tired at all and resist bedtime.
A good bedtime routine with clear rules will help your child. Perhaps try these strategies.
Decrease screen time, especially in the run up to bedtime.
No caffeine or sugar in your child’s diet.
Use the time before bed for “quiet” activities like colouring or reading.
Use lavender or other peaceful aromas in the bedroom.
Use relaxation tapes or simple meditation techniques.
If you have tried all of the above and you still feel that your child is struggling to maintain concentration for any suitable amount of time, then it might be time to talk to a healthcare professional or the SENCO at school.
I am not a fan of labels for children but the inability to concentrate or focus for any length of time can be an indicator that a child has ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
There is no cure for ADHD but some of the tips I have shared may help. Getting advise from professionals and support from school will help your child cope better with the condition.
For more information and tips check out the following links